Leading Article: London is a disgrace

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The Independent Online
LAST Wednesday, London's underground system virtually collapsed. Not because of a strike or other form of industrial action. Not because of heavy snow or torrential rain. Not because of IRA bombs. It collapsed because it is worn out. Somewhere among the ancient cabling on the east of the network - cabling that should have been replaced 15 years ago - an electrical fault had tripped large parts of the system, leaving it without power. About 20,000 people were trapped underground, some of them for as long as four hours. Since the fault has still not been traced, half of one tube line remains out of action, apparently indefinitely.

This is not a matter that should concern Londoners only, for two reasons. First, the state of the London underground is only the most extreme example of the Government's disregard for the fabric of Britain and, in particular, for its public transport. Second, London is Britain's capital city and its tube system is used by tourists and visiting business people from all over the world. What must they think of a city that cannot even run an adequate railway? What must they think in Paris or New York or Tokyo or Madrid where people have received faxed appeals from London Underground managers asking for advice on how to cope with the faults created by such an antiquated system?

For regular users of London's tubes, last week's fiasco was different from their usual experience only in its scale. The system is visibly desperate for investment. The average train was built in 1969, many are considerably older. More than 160 miles of track, two-thirds of the system, needs rebuilding over the next 15 years. Signals, some of them 40 years old, frequently break down. So do escalators, some of them more than 50 years old.

Last week's collapse came, with exquisite timing, just two days after John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, had distributed 250,000 questionnaires to Londoners asking for their views on how the capital city could be improved. (Making the Best Better, he entitled the accompanying booklet, without any apparent irony.) Mr Gummer said he would listen to any ideas except a single democratically elected body for the capital. That was just 'silly talk', he said, and there was far too much of it. But London's transport, above and below ground, is an example of what happens when a city lacks a proper representative body that can raise revenue and take action to achieve strategic aims. Some 60 separate bodies have responsibility for various aspects of transport. (A few of these, between them, managed to clog the capital's traffic earlier this year by simultanously closing two bridges completely and four others partially.) None of them has the power, as the regional and city authorities in Paris do, to offer significant subsidy to the tube network. Paris, for example, supports the Metro with a payroll tax on employers. The results were demonstrated in a study published last year. Londoners pay more - between two and three times more - for an inferior service, waiting longer to travel on older and more overcrowded trains.

The Monopolies and Mergers Commission, reporting in 1991, said that the Underground needed pounds 700-750m a year to provide 'an acceptably modern network'. Malcolm Rifkind, then the Secretary of State for Transport, agreed that it should get pounds 700m in 1993-94. A couple of public spending rounds later, the figure has dwindled to pounds 532m and there is little prospect of improvement. The Government insists that a tube network must 'pay its way', as though it were some optional frivolity like a theme park or a firework display. Yet the tube is used primarily to carry people to and from work. If they do not use the tube, they take to their cars, delaying other commuters, delaying the delivery of goods and services, delaying police and emergency services, to the exasperation of almost everybody except Government ministers who can sit in their chauffeur-driven vehicles, working happily through their red boxes. The CBI has estimated that traffic congestion in London costs pounds 10bn a year. Some economists reckon that money invested now in the tube would eventually reduce the public sector borrowing requirement because the extra economic activity would generate some pounds 5bn of extra tax revenues.

London's underground is not just inefficient; it is dangerous. Sooner or later, a disaster on the scale of the King's Cross fire in 1987 will happen again - a crash or a derailment or possibly people being crushed to death by the passenger congestion created when trains are delayed. After King's Cross, the tube got pounds 800m. Do we have to wait for another catastrophe before London Underground gets the investment it needs?